A Life, Warm and Brief as a Summer’s Day

Not every great writer is a great human being.  We expect the people who touch our souls with their prose to be as wonderful as their words but sadly, that isn’t always the case.  There are some writers whose work I admire, that I wouldn’t want within a mile of me, alive or dead.  On the other hand, I wish I could have met the Oscar Wilde in Richard Ellmann’s biography of that name.  Seldom has literary genius been paired with such a decent, gentle spirit.

It’s hard these days to think of Wilde’s life as anything other than tragedy.  There he is in his early years, telling the customs agent he “has nothing to declare but his genius.” That was an example of Oscar’s hyperbole and humor but it was also a statement of fact for this Oxford educated son of Ireland.  His moral code was based on aesthetics, not just because he believed in in the innate goodness of beauty but because his own instincts usually directed him to be kind.  His observations and plays outraged Victorian society but they were outrageously funny and stylish.  No one before had let the air out of English sails with such a perfectly poised jab of humor.  And, for all of the unconventional things Wilde wrote or said, in public he led a reasonably conventional life.  He enjoyed the luxuries of an upper class existence, including the wife and two small sons he adored.  As far as Victorian society cared to see, Wilde was only wild in thought.  He made them think a little and laugh a lot and they loved him for it. How could this kind, intelligent man, fall apart at the height of his fame?
Some men are ruined by falling for the wrong woman.  Oscar fell in love with the wrong man.  The gentle soul that wrote “The Selfish Giant” had probably always known he was gay although he’d tried to live as a straight husband and father.  Until the 1890’s any man who shared an intimate part of his life understood the need for silence. Then Lord Alfred Douglas appeared, with his beautiful face and mediocre talent.  Oscar was infatuated, although he never quite forgot that his own success lay in his own hands.  Lord Alfred or “Bosie”‘s future was bought and paid for with family money; Oscar knew his future depended on his efforts as an artist and he tried to be as fair as he could to his wife and sons.  Besides, no matter how beautiful he was, Bosie was only happy when he had churned life into a drama.  Oscar often needed a peaceful retreat where he could think and work.

When Bosie’s father (the Marquess of Queensberry, famous for his boxing rules) described Oscar as “posing as a somdomite [sic]” Bosie insisted Oscar should sue for libel.  Other friends of Oscar argued a lawsuit would be disastrous since the statement was basically true, but Bosie insisted.  So, Oscar “took to the law” and Bosie’s father proved his point with the testimony of some male prostitutes.  The legal bills took all of Oscar’s earnings and the scandal meant no one would produce his plays.  Society’s support for him disappeared.  The transcript of Oscar’s civil suit became evidence in a criminal case against him.  The conviction cost Oscar his family, his health and two years of his freedom.  While Oscar served time in prison, Bosie traveled through Europe.

Ellmann’s biography captures the personal and professional dedication that abided in Oscar Wilde’s life even after his release from prison.  He and Bosie were reunited for a short time but the pressures that undermined their relationship before, undermined it again.  The banished and ruined genius moved to Paris and wrote what he could, correcting copies of his earlier plays and publishing “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”.  He had lost the joy necessary for writing comedy but not his witty nature.  “My wallpaper and I are in a duel to the death” he said during one of his last outings. “One of us has got to go.”  On November 30, at age 46, Oscar went, leaving behind the hideous wallpaper, one or two faithful friends, some brilliant work and two boys who no longer carried his name.  People who love laughter have mourned him ever since.

Several biographies of Wilde dwell on the salacious parts of his life, and a few focus on his Irish background.  Ellmann included those as well as the disciplined artist whose work was the result of toil as well as talent and the gentle human being who could forgive almost any slight to himself.  Ellmann’s Oscar Wilde scooped a Pulitzer as well as a National Book Award and is considered the definitive biography.  It’s a shame the biographer did not live long enough to enjoy the praise this book received.

Ellman’s biography and it’s subject are like a summer itself: warm, generous, and gone too soon.  Still, we can be grateful for their gifts of warmth and, in winter, dream of sun on green leaves.

Cooking with Words

God never meant me to cook good food.  When it comes to spices, herbs, flavors and proteins, I’m a major disaster.  I mean major.  My home economics teacher recognized this when I put tablespoons of oregano in her braised radishes instead of the teaspoons she specified.  (Who braises radishes anyway?) My husband figured it out the night I added sugar to the meatloaf instead of salt.  He thanked me for inventing meat cake and took me out for a burger instead.   The fact is, the kitchen never excited me as much as the printed page does.  So instead of cooking the regular way, I cook with words.

One thing I have learned is that Great Cooks aren’t Born, They Are Made. Julia Child had to go to school, August Escoffier learned through an apprenticeship, and Justin Wilson was taught by his mother.  The same goes for cooking with words.  All writers start out as great readers, picking up skills by studying the best.  And like all students who’ve watched accomplished teachers, those would-be creators studied their texts,  picked up their tools and concocted….horrendous messes.  Good books and teachers can help you get started but nothing is a substitute for practice, practice, practice and lots of failure, failure, failure.
Maybe that’s why, at the age of (ahem) fifty-six, the only dish I make well enough to serve is a hot cup of tea.  I’ve been a hot tea drinker since the age of twelve when my mom told me about living in England. Getting tea right means using good ingredients, proper proportions (water should be hot but not boiling) and a clean, warmed tea pot.  I made bad cups of tea until I could finally make good ones and now I make those in my sleep.  And while I am no Gordon Ramsay at the key-board, I’ve written so many five-paragraph essays, I can churn those out as well.  
A quick word about those ingredients, word-wise: nouns and verbs are your friends.  Action verbs with some zing to them (i.e. howled, scrape, slinging, etc.) are great spice words but use spice accordingly.  It should enhance the dish, not dominate it.  I think conjunctions must be alcohol and I’ll probably need a twelve-step program for these, one day.  It’s easy and fun to compare concepts by sticking them together with a conjunction but if you combine too many, the sentences get blurry. Be careful with conjunctions.  Like Humpty-Dumpty in Alice Through the Looking Glass, I find adjectives are fairly manageable words as long as they’re spaced well apart.  Adverbs should be approached with great care as they can actually weaken a sentence.   If you’ve got a sentence drenched in words that end in “ly”, take them all out and read the sentence again without them.  Is the sentiment still clear but stronger without all those adverbs?  If it is, don’t say I told you so.
To become really good at anything requires a compulsive interest in the subject.  Great chefs don’t create a brilliant dish once and then never make it again.  They analyze how and why that creation works and create variations or re-invent it as needed.  They know how to make a great plate of food, but they’re always interested in making it better.   If you watch writers at work (which is so entertaining, your insomnia will be cured right away) they’re just as obsessive about getting the rhythm right in each sentence and paragraph. This may look as productive as someone re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, but each sentence requires a lot of tinkering to make it sound just right  and they will re-read, re-write, and re-arrange their composition until they either give up, whimpering, or go back to rework it some more.  That’s an obsession but sometimes OCD is required if you want to compose something worth seeing (or eating).
So, I’ll never be much good in the kitchen, I think, except for a great cup of tea.  That’s all right.  I respect the people who work there and improve the world with their art.  I’m grateful for what they do. In the meantime, you’ll find me staring at a screen or piece of paper while phrases swirl round in my head.  Someday I’ll serve and say “Bon appetit!”

The Right Book at the Right Time

There’s a theory that people come into our lives to teach us what we need to know.  They may be people we like or dislike and we may not always care for their lessons but the knowledge we gain from them helps move us through our lives.  I like that theory but I think it needs to be expanded to include books.  Along with entertainment and education, the right book at the right time can change a person’s future.  I’m still giving thanks for a book that came my way about twenty-five years ago.  I’ll always be indebted to Pat Conroy for writing The Prince of Tides.

If anyone missed the announcements, Mr. Conroy writes stories about the perennial outsider.  Whether the focus is on a Marine’s family readjusting to a new environment or the English Major in a military college, his people don’t think they fit in the orderly pattern that makes up their world.  Because they don’t fit, Outsiders tend to stay on the defensive. The first lesson in The Prince of Tides  is how defending yourself can cost you everything you care for in life.

Tom Wingo, the coach in The Prince of Tides has had good reason for living life in defense mode.  As a son, he suffered under a physically abusive father and an emotionally manipulative mother.  As a child of a poor family, he experienced the cold-hearted snobbery that exists in so many small towns. As an adult Southerner visiting New York, he now gets a lot of grief about his home.  In response, he’s learned to hide his feelings behind a wise-cracking persona.  The problem is, that persona has walled him away from his wife and the children he loves.  Tom is a miserable, isolated man, in danger of losing his family, when his sister’s psychiatrist asks for his help in understanding the childhood traumas he and his sister repressed.

Silence was part of the pattern of their dysfunctional family, making it hard to uncover the truth.  The silence their mother required meant no child could admit feeling pain or anger after being abused.  Tom’s sister, Savannah, kept her anger inside until she turned it against herself.  Tom’s anger simmers even in his humor, and it conflicts with his feelings of affection but that’s because he still has something to learn.

The biggest lesson in The Prince of Tides is the necessity of forgiveness as a way for letting the anger go.  If silence creates an emotional infection and honesty is the lance, then forgiveness is the medicine that allows an abscess to heal.  Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting some people are dangerous or giving them carte-blanche to cause more damage, but it does mean the victim is no longer a hostage to injuries or pain they endured long ago.  Forgiveness means living in the present and future by letting go of the sins in the past.

I haven’t spoken of the lyrical beauty in this book’s prose or the riveting plot and dialogue.  I should because I was swept away by these.  I haven’t spoken about the brilliance or “deep Southern magic” that’s present on every page.  I haven’t spoken about a great many things that make The Prince of Tides a wonderful book.  Instead, I’ll say that the book came along at just the right time for me.  For a year, The Prince of Tides became the book I needed until I started to absorb its lessons.  It was the book that helped me understand a conflicted past didn’t have to dictate the future.  That lesson changed my life for good.